Surgery Complication Feels Like 'Living Death'

What if you accidentally woke up in the middle of your surgery?

It's called anesthesia awareness -- a rare, but serious surgical phenomenon of being paralyzed by drugs, yet mentally alert, under general anesthesia.

'Living Death'

"You're screaming inside your body," said Carol Weihrer, a victim of anesthesia awareness. "You're trying to crawl off the gurney, you're trying to move a toe, you're trying to wince ... and there is absolutely nothing you can do."

Weihrer woke up on the operating table while doctors were removing her diseased eye.

"I heard my surgeon say to the resident, 'Cut deeper and pull harder,'" she said. "And I finally realized they were not finished; they were just starting. So the senses that I felt were the tremendous pulling. I had seen them cut my optic nerve and I knew when everything went black. I wanted to get off that table or to die."

Wake-Up Call

The condition affects between 20,000 and 40,000 of the approximately 21 million people in the United States who receive general anesthesia every year, according to a 2004 report from the International Anesthesia Research Society by Dr. Peter S. Sebel, a professor of anesthesia at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

Recently the buzz around anesthesia awareness has been increasing thanks to the release of a psychological thriller, "Awake." The film, starring Jessica Alba and Hayden Christensen exposes viewers to the consciousness of a patient (Christensen) who awakes mid-surgery while the doctors are cutting him open.

This week, expert anesthesiologists from around the country met to discuss the worrisome problem and bring awareness to the condition. With "Awake" stoking fears across America after its release this week, they're hoping the increased attention will lead to better patient care.

Weihrer still suffers from nightmares about her surgery 10 years ago and fears the movie might further traumatize her fellow victims.

What You Can Do

According to Dr. Tim Johnson, ABC News medical correspondent, there are many reasons why "some patients may have resistant brains to anesthesia."

A patient with a history of alcohol abuse or one who is currently medically sick are more susceptible to risk.

Patients taking beta blockers should be sure to tell their doctors. The drugs, which slow down the heart rate and lower blood pressure, can mute physiological signs of awareness, and an anesthesiologist might not be able to tell what's going on.

But there's not always a clear reason for anesthesia awareness, Johnson said.

"Ultimately, sometimes, it's just mysterious," he said.

If you're worried, talk to your doctors and "ask the anesthesiologist what kind of monitoring is going to be done."

Johnson stressed that anesthesia awareness is rare.

"It's probably one tenth of 1 percent, a very small number," he said. "So obviously patients should not in general worry."

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